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COVID-19: South Korea braced for ‘third wave’ as daily cases hit new highs

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South Korean officials have warned of a third wave of coronavirus, as a resurgence in cases continues over the Christmas period.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) recorded 1,132 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, which was the country’s second-highest daily increase after 1,241 on Christmas Day.

South Korea has been seen as one of the countries to have responded best to the pandemic since it began, but has seen significant coronavirus outbreaks in prisons, nursing homes and churches recently – leading to officials asking people to stop end-of-year gatherings.


A man undergoes coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test at a coronavirus testing site which is temporarily set up in front of a railway station on Christmas day in Seoul, South Korea, December 25, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
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South Korea has a implemented rigorous coronavirus testing and tracing regime

Health minister Kwon Deok-cheol said: “The virus is spreading whenever and wherever it wants.”

Warning that the country was standing “at the crossroads of the third wave”, he said people were being infected by friends and family at small gatherings.

Chief of KDCA, Jeong Eun-kyeong, has urged that all private gatherings should be cancelled, with public and religious events held online instead.

The government will meet on Sunday to discuss whether social distancing rules should be upgraded to their toughest levels in the greater Seoul area, where 780 of the latest cases were reported.

This would mean 1.2 million more stores would have to close and only essential workers would be allowed in offices.

Under current restrictions, nightclubs, karaoke bars and other night entertainment venues have shut. Dining has also been banned after 9pm.

Prior to Christmas, tourist spots were closed and a ban was also placed on gatherings of more than four people in the greater Seoul area, which is home to 26 million people.

A man reads a book while waiting in a line to undergo coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test at a coronavirus testing site which is temporarily set up in front of a railway station on Christmas day in Seoul, South Korea, December 25, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
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Critics have said the government has become over-confident, failing to prepare for a third wave

South Korea has managed to curb major outbreaks early with rigorous testing and contact tracing.

However, the authorities have been criticised for being over-confident and failing to prepare for a third wave, which is expected to be the largest.

The country’s largest cluster is currently at a prison is eastern Seoul, where 520 inmates, workers, and their family members have been infected – leading to the testing of all 650 people there.

Overall, South Korea has had 55,902 coronavirus cases and 793 deaths, according to KDCA data.

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What lessons can we learn from South Korea?

Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, which since the world’s first outbreak began in China has fallen well behind Europe and the US in terms of cases, there are other COVID records being broken.

Tokyo experienced a daily high of 949 cases on Saturday, according to local media, leading to bars being ordered to close early and residents urged to avoid non-essential outings.

The new year period often sees an influx of people from the capital stream into provinces across Japan.

However, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, has urged the nation to stay home and avoid mixing with others.

Pedestrians cross a street in Tokyo's Shinjuku area on December 12, 2020, as the city reported 621 new infections of the Covid-19 coronavirus. (Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP) (Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)
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Tokyo has reported its highest daily increase in cases

Looking further ahead, Beijing has urged residents not to leave the city during the Lunar New Year holiday in February, implementing new restrictions after a handful of infections last week.

Two cases were reported on Friday, after another two asymptomatic cases earlier in the week.

Beijing is conducting testing on a limited scale in the neighbourhoods and workplaces where the cases were found – while large gatherings have been banned and capacity limits imposed on venues like cinemas and museums.

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